As far back as the 1960s, the Chinese Government referred to rare earth metals (REMs), otherwise known as strategic metals, as the "oil of the 21st-century". Half a century later, with global oil reserves in terminal decline, China produces 97% of the rare earth elements (REEs) used to drive the alternative energy systems of the future, including those that harvest wind, wave and tidal power.
All 17 rare earth elements, as well as molybdenum, gallium and germanium, are also found in minute amounts in virtually every modern technological application, including light alloys for aerospace components, battery electrodes, catalysts and lasers. Without them, the supercomputers, rockets and complex medical devices of the future would likely remain the stuff of science fiction.
By using permanent magnets that are free from dysprosium, a relatively scarce REE, along with other engineering innovations that dramatically reduce the use of structural steel and eliminate the use of expensive laminated electrical steel, wind turbines incorporating BWP"s technology could produce power at or below $0.04 per kW/h, making it competitive with fossil fuel energy production costs.
Between 1980 and 2010, global production and consumption of rare earths - the name is misleading since rare earth elements are actually abundant, the two rarest (thulium and lutetium) are roughly 200 times more common than gold - increased at an annual rate of 4.8%. World demand is projected to rise from its current level of 136,000t a year to 185,000t annually by 2015.
Deep impact: subsea and solution mining
Bloodworth and DeYoung agree that deep subsea exploration represents the next frontier in terrestrial mineral exploration.
"Sources of mineral supply that were thought to be unconventional a few decades ago, such as ocean mining, are closer to reality," said DeYoung. "In 1874, Jules Verne predicted in the book Mysterious Island the use of electrolytic hydrogen as a fuel. His assertion that "water will be the coal of the future" hasn"t happened yet, but it seems less like science fiction now and the future is a century closer than then."
In January 2011, the world"s first deep sea mining lease was granted to Canadian company Nautilus Minerals, giving the green light for its Solwara 1 project to commercially explore seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) systems, a potential source of high-grade copper, gold, zinc and silver, at depths of up to 1,600m in the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
"Take your mobile phone," said Bloodworth. "It may contain indium to make the touch screen work properly or has tungsten in it to make it vibrate. Every Toyota Prius contains several kilograms of rare earth elements (including 10-15kg of lanthanum in its nickel-metal hydride battery).
Mining for minerals on other planets, asteroids and comets has intrigued science-fiction devotees since the 1930s.
In his book Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets, University of Arizona scientist John S. Lewis calculated the gross value of the M-type asteroid 3554 Amun at $20 trillion: $8 trillion from iron and nickel, $6 trillion-worth of cobalt and $6 trillion in the form of platinum-group metals.
"With the asteroidal supplies of metal at hand, we could meet Earth"s needs for the next 400 million years," Lewis stated.
"We live on a planet made of metal and we are becoming very ingenious at finding ways of recovering it," he claimed. "Extraterrestrial mining, if you look ahead 1,000 years, I can maybe see it happening, but not before."
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